Life abroad can be incredible . . . and challenging . . . and wonderful . . . and horrible.
Transition from one space, one place, one system and one normal to another is an ongoing process.
Even after the initial settling in, “culture shock” and newby bumblings, life abroad remains more fluid, more changing and more filled up with shaky uncertainties than monocultural life back on the farm.
Another angle that we often miss (in our sweet little expat bubble) is the fact that we have also imported copious amounts of transition into our host culture. They were normal before we got here — or at least they knew what normal looked like. Now their lives are filled with a constant stream of incoming and outgoing foreigners who talk funny, act weird, eat wrong and complain a lot.
You can’t write stuff this good.
Wide-eyed, hyper-optimistic, fresh off the boat Newpats (new expats) getting initiated and inundated by multi-varying degrees of seasoned or disgruntled or savvy or battle-weary Vetpats (veteran expats) who introduce them to the ways of the Locals with wise, wise words of expat genius like . . . ” you can’t get that here.”
It’s a wild mix of people who don’t understand the least bit about each other but feel the pressure to act as if they do. It’s like a gigantic petri dish for toxic assumptions to go crazy.
It’s not always fatal but it is never healthy.
Here is a short (and very abridged) guide to cross-cultural assumptions:
The assumption of direct correlation:The false assumption that every new experience is fully grasped and understood based on previous exposure to a completely unrelated and equally misunderstood foreign culture. Generally accompanied by the words, “That’s just like” or “When I was” or both.
Example:“Oh they eat with chopsticks?! That’s just like when I was in India . . . and they ate with their hands.”
Nope. It’s actually not.
The assumption of overestimated relational capital: The misguided perception that ones influence in his or her new community is stronger than than it actually is. Often accompanied by expectations for broad paradigm shifts based on personal recommendations, followed by confusion when said paradigm shifts don’t occur immediately.
Example: “Wow, you guys are way too introverted. It wasn’t like that where I come from. Let’s start a street corner karaoke night every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Here’s a sign up sheet.”
Slow down. People need to trust you before they can trust you (read that twice).
The assumption of different is wrong: The premature deduction that cultural characteristics, customs, traditions or actions are automatically faulty solely by nature of their deviation from the Newpats preferred alternative. Often accompanied by phrases such as, “did you see that?!” followed by some sort of question, mockery or expletive.
Example: “Did you see that toilet?!! It’s a hole in the floor. How do they even do that?”
Different does not equal wrong. If it does, you are in trouble. Look around — you are the different one.
The assumption of time standing still: The notion that virtually nothing has changed between the entry points of the Vetpat and the Newpat. Often accompanied by phrases like, “Yeah, you can’t get that here” or “you can’t do that here.”
Vetpat: “Soap? No we bring that from home.”
Newpat: “Really? I thought I saw some at the market.”
Vetpat: “No that’s probably Tofu.”
Newpat: “Ah. Ok. Do you think I could find it online?”
Vetpat: “On what?”
You don’t have to stay up on everything but don’t put the Newpats in your box.
The assumption of identical issues: The idea that the Newpat will experience the exact same gut reactions and frustrations that the Vetpat experienced. Accompanied by phrases like, “You’re going to . . . ” or “You’ll probably . . . ”
Example: “You’re going to love the food. You’re going to hate the smell. You’re going to get really frustrated when they stare at you so much so that you’ll probably snap at some point, put on a Spiderman costume and start screaming, “TAKE A PICTURE IT WILL LAST LONGER.”
“It’s ok if you do.”
Newpats will develop their own biases. Don’t insist they share yours.
The assumption of golden words:The ill-conceived impression that Newpats are hanging on every wise and wonderful nugget of advice and guidance offered by the Vetpat. Often accompanied by one sided conversations, long explanations, presumptuous opinions (stated as fact) and a deep sense of satisfaction for the Vetpat.
Newpat: “Hey where’s the bathroom.”
Vetpat: “Well, son let me tell you, there are actually three different types of (finger quotes) ‘bath rooms’ in this country. The first is an actual (finger quotes) ‘room for bathing’. Historically, you see, this is a much more collective culture than . . . (30 minutes later) . . . so the third one, or as the locals would call it the (finger quotes again) ‘room of the toilet’ is down the hall to the left. I’ll take you there.”
Newpat: “Nah. Thanks. I’m good.”
Your wisdom is so wise . . . really, it is . . . so stop talking and listen for a while so someone will hear it.
The assumption that ignorance equals stupidity:The misconception that ones intellect, intelligence or complexity is directly reflected in his or her capacity to express them in the context of a foreign language or culture. Generally accompanied by speaking louder, slower and offering disproportionate praise for the simplest accomplishments.
Local: “HELLO! WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . . . . . . . . . NAME?!!”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Bob”
Local: “WAAAHHH BOB. YOUR LANGUAGE IS SOOOOO GOOOD!!”
Foreigner: “Really? I just said my name”
Local: “WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . JOB?”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Astrophysicist”
Local: “WAAAH. YOU ARE SOOOO SMART. YES YOU ARE.”
Examples can vary drastically from location to location but the same assumption shows up universally. Just because the foreigner can’t say it, doesn’t mean they don’t know it.
The assumption of cookie cutter foreigners:The mistaken conclusion that all foreign people share a single set of opinions, ideas, understandings and temperaments. Accompanied by words like, “They”, “always” and “because.”
Example: “You’re feeding your foreign friend what?!! No don’t do that. THEY hate spicy food. They always start sweating and crying because they only eat cheese and vegetables.”
Special note: The assumption of cookie cutter LOCALS could be added to both the Newpat and the Vetpat lists.
The assumption of weird foreigners: The unfortunate deduction that all foreigners are strange, odd or different.
Actually this one is probably spot on. We can own it.
The only tragedy of oddness is when it becomes an insurmountable obstacle to relationship. Weird is worth working through.
If assumptions are poison then QUESTIONS are the antidote. Good questions. Lots of questions.
Starting with “I don’t know, but I want to” instead of “yeah, that’s just like” changes absolutely everything.
So how do you ask good questions?
That’s another post entirely.
How about you? Which assumptions have poisoned you or your community the most? What other assumptions have you seen (or used)?
Part of my job is to prepare people for toilets in China.
Don’t be jealous.
Many a Western style traveler now have a killer party story to tell because they were caught off guard in an Eastern style bathroom.
The odors alone are generally enough but that is never the end of the tale (no pun intended). There is also the issue of the missing toilet paper in most public restrooms. My absolute favorite bumbling foreigner stories of all time involve grown men who went into a stall wearing socks and came out wearing none.
(pause here until that last sentence makes sense)
The most crucial bit of forewarning, though, is that sometime . . . somewhere . . . you’ll be out and have no choice . . .
You’re gonna’ have to use a squatty.
I’ve even worked up a helpful training tool to help newbies remember the key steps.
1. Pause — don’t rush into this. Do you have tissue?
2. Observe — Scan the stall. Is there cleanup that should happen before this begins? Is there a hook to hang your jacket on?
3. Only Halfway — Which (without intending to be crude) has to do with your trousers and the distance between your waist and your shoes. Simply put, don’t drop em’ to the floor. It never ends well (no pun intended).
Pause — Observe — Only Halfway. It’s a bit of an acronym for easy remembering.
You’re welcome for that.
A foreigner’s first time using a squatty is a rite of passage — it’s a magical moment when you prove that you didn’t just come here for the stuff they put in the brochure. No, no — you are a mover and a shaker (no pun intended).
HOWEVER — The standard Western reaction to the experience of the Eastern toilet is typically handled tongue in cheek (pun intended a little bit). We’ll squat if we must but in the back of our minds it’s ridiculous and frankly uncivilized. There is smirking and joking and (at the very least) light hearted mocking because THESE PEOPLE haven’t yet figured out the right way . . . the proper way . . . the Queen’s way of doing their business.
It’s little more than a glorified, porcelainized version of pooping in the woods.
Confession time — I still snort laugh a little every time I go into a Chinese Starbucks bathroom and see the sign that says
“For your safety, please refrain from squatting on the toilet seat.”
That’s just funny.
Mostly because Starbucks is the poster child for all things Western and yet someone in the top office had to concede that they needed to take quick action, presumably because some poor soul had slipped and broken his collarbone complaining that there was no sign warning of the dangers of squatting on a Western toilet.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Here’s the thing. We joke. We laugh. We even question the sophistication and development of cultures who do things differently from us . . .
Until we realize that they are right.
One of the hottest new products in the Western world right now is the “squatty potty.” Not the ground level Asian sort but the pooping unicorn, as seen on Shark Tank sort that brings your knees up and converts your Westie to a squatty instantly.
(if you’re one of the eight Westerners who haven’t seen this video yet, give it a click)
Someone from our side of the globe has finally argued both convincingly and hilariously that squatting is best practice.
I mean except for the rest of world.
It’s a complex cultural phenomenon isn’t it? When THEY (whoever they are) say it, it sounds ridiculous but when WE say it, it’s genius.
It would be one thing if it was only one thing. But it’s not.
Few outsiders who come to China are not, at some point, overwhelmed by the the sheer number of toddler tushies that they see out and about in the public square. “Split pants” are just what they sound like — quick easy access because when babies gotta’ go, babies gotta’ go.
Consequently, parents and grandparents are often seen on the sidewalk, squatting their little ones while they make a mess worth stepping around.
It’s ridiculous. Messy. Disgusting.
But Elimination Communication (which is exactly the same thing) — Now that’s just genius. That’s the phrase that was coined when a Westerner spent time in India and Africa and came back with a “brand new” potty training method that focused on parent-child bonding, zero diaper rash, months faster results and an end to landfills once and for all.
The concept has taken off in the West and been the springboard for numerous more trendy (and pricy) lines of the exact same thing that has been common practice throughout much of the world for centuries.
photo credit: bbc.com
Maybe, the most prominent recent example of “it was stupid until we thought of it” has been brought to us by 23 time gold medalist Michael Phelps (and numerous other Olympians who jumped on the cupping train). He taught us in Rio that gigantic hickeys aren’t always a bad thing.
Confession time — I’m a lot like Michael in that (and only in that) I too have had my back covered in these enormous, suction induced bruises. I even wrote about it several years ago in:
My stance was, “stay away children . . . stay away” — but I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong. In fairness however, I wrote from my own experience back when it was THEIR idea . . . way before it was OURS . . .
Like the time I got 28 enormous hickeys on my back or the day I discovered I might be Amish.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Life as a bumbling foreigner makes me laugh — some days simply because the alternative involves some combination of thumb sucking, a fetal position and dents in my wall that match my forehead.
If you can relate — even a little — then you should read this new book:
“THE DAY GRANDMA GOT US KICKED OUT OF MEXICO (and other fun stories about life as a bumbling American foreigner)“
It’s a short compilation of my favorite and funnest stories, interactions and reflections over the past several years and it’s free.
This book is simply about stepping back and enjoying the expat ride . . . bumps and all. There is no moral to the story. No great self-help wisdom. Just a few light hearted thoughts from the perspective of an American living in China. Incidentally, it might even make a good read for a German living in Brazil . . . or a Kenyan living in Russia.
Probably not a Canadian living in Greece though. That’s pushing it.
Here’s how you get the book. Just sign in below and click on the big red button. Check your email to prove that you are a human (easier for some) and enjoy.
Thanks for reading . . . and for laughing at my Grandma. I hope to return the favor someday.
The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico
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If you enjoy the book or you’ve got a fun bumbling foreigner story of your own I’d love to hear about it. Please comment share this post with your friends.
Hey expat. You too repat. When was the last time you laughed?
Like really laughed. Belly laughed until your ears hurt and you actually had to force yourself to think of something sad for fear that you might pull a muscle in your gut. Laughed so hard that you had to fight to catch your breath even after you stopped laughing . . . and then you snorted and started laughing all over again.
I’m not talking “lol” here. I mean “BWAAHAHA!”
How long has it been? How often does it happen?
Too long? Not often enough?
Why is that?
Let me guess. Life happened. Transition got real. Culture shock or re-entry stress hit you like a ton of bricks and you can’t even remember what gut laughing feels like.
In the economy of major life transition, laughter sometimes feels like a luxury that you can’t afford.
I’m right with you . . . but we’re both wrong.
It’s hard to find a better value proposition than laughter. Your investmentment is virtually nothing and the returns are astronomical. Try to get that deal from stress . . . or worry . . . or anger . . . or complaining . . . or overthinking . . . or even venting.
Bottom line? You need to laugh.
Laughing is healthier and tastes better than Kale
The only thing that disqualifies laughter from being classified as a superfood is that . . . well, technically it’s not a food (if you want to be all picky). However, the studies are in (lots of them) and all of the data points to the same conclusion. Laughing is actually crazy healthy. Physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.
Here are some of the benefits (not making this up).
Lower blood pressure
Increase short-term memory
Lower stress hormones
Protect against heart disease
Defend against respiratory infections
Improve alertness and creativity
Increase oxygen levels in your blood
Increase pain tolerance
Make you blow milk out of your nose which makes other people laugh which resets the whole healthy cycle
Seriously. Kale isn’t even funny. At all.
Laughter is the opposite of everything that stresses you out
Important to note here. Laughter doesn’t SOLVE all of your transition challenges. It’s not going to magically infuse your brain with a foreign language or explain to your family why you’re crying in the cereal aisle. Laughter is not the answer to all of your pain but it might be the break that you need to STOP being consumed by the hard stuff. Even for a little bit.
A good laugh can be a great reset.
There are no Laughter Rehabs
People with issues (like you and me) want to detach. It’s what we do. Unfortunately the unhealthy options that offer a break from hard realities are as unlimited as the devastation that comes as a result of engaging with them. Laughter is all natural with zero negative side effects. So is kale but we’ve covered that.
A good laugh can give you a break without disconnecting or doing damage.
Laughter crosses cultural boundaries
Some of my most enjoyable laughs have been shared with people who speak about five words in my language (which is three more than I speak in theirs). To be clear . . . HUMOR does NOT often cross cultural lines.
Like, hardly ever.
Your jokes are probably not funny to the rest of the world. Sorry, but it’s better you find out here . . . from the guy who has learned the hard way.
HOWEVER — humor is not the only thing worth laughing at. If and when you find that point of connection with someone who is on the other side of a cultural line, it is golden. A good laugh not only crosses cultural barriers — it crushes them and builds a rapport that is hard to find elsewhere.
A note for repats — You’re crossing cultures too.
A good laugh can be a surprisingly great connector.
Laughing at yourself means you’re doing transition right
If you can’t laugh at yourself in the context of being a bumbling foreigner or returning “home” (and feeling like a bumbling foreigner) you are likely to do one of two things: Explode or Implode. Neither of those is good (just in case you were wondering).
There is only one reason you should laugh at yourself. Ready?
Because you’re funny.
Not so much in the brilliant, well thought out comedic genius kind of way. No no, you’re funny in the cat who falls off a ceiling fan kind of way. You’re making mistakes and falling down even though you look and feel like you shouldn’t be.
Frustrating . . . but funny.
Bumbling and falling can be a shot to your pride for sure — but laughing at yourself can be an indicator that your pride isn’t controlling you. I’m not talking about a self-loathing, self abusive, “I’m too stupid to do anything” laughter — but a healthy acknowledgement that you are not, in fact, the first person to do transition without falling down is a good sign.
A good laugh at yourself is a great gauge for transitional health.
Laughter is a good sign of things to come
Transition is a thief. It temporarily robs you of the comfort and confidence that you enjoyed back when you were settled. Remember those days? You had it all figured out. Now it’s just awkward. You don’t laugh when things are awkward.
Ok you might “lol” . . . but you don’t “BWAAHAHA!!”
So finding a way to genuinely laugh, even before you’re resettled, gives you a glimpse of something good that is coming.
A good laugh can be a great reminder that it’s going to get better.
One important disclaimer that could change everything:
It matters what you laugh at
All of this is out the window if it takes ripping someone else (or yourself for that matter) to shreds for you to laugh. You might still get the sugar rush but it’s not worth the damage you’ll leave behind (and carry with you).
So take some time and get intentional. Try this — Write down five times you can remember laughing til it hurt. Now start making connections. What do they have in common? Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What can you recreate now? What can you not?
Even if transition has made it impossible to reproduce your most laughable moments, don’t give up on finding some new ones.
Why not start with a chuckle? — scroll up to the blue box at the top, right of this page and download my new ebook, “The Day Grandma Got us Kicked Out of Mexico.” It’s full of some of my most frustrating and enjoyable laughs as a bumbling foreigner.
My family’s not normal but let’s be honest . . . neither is yours.
I swear this happened one time — in America to boot.
I was at my hometown mall watching my daughter (a toddler at the time) trip around the foam rubber, indoor playground just outside of the Panda Express. I hadn’t been a father long but I knew from watching TV that playground chit chat was a thing. I was ready — or so I thought.
A woman, whom I believe was Chinese, kicked off a conversation.
“Is that your kid?”
“Good opening question” I thought. “I can do this.”
“Yeah.” I said with a chuckle that simultaneously meant, “isn’t she cute” and “chit chat is easy.”
“She doesn’t look like you.”
I felt like maybe she was unnecessarily stating the obvious but I was not deterred.
Chuckling again I said, “Yeah. She’s adopted.”
Now this is the moment where a normal person has expectations right? You expect any number of responses like — “Aww, that is so sweet” or “Wow, that’s really great” or “Oh cool, my cousin is adopted.”
But nope. I got . . .
“Hmm . . . cause you can’t make one?”
I’m just going to pause my blog for a moment to let the awkwardness fully sink in. Continue when you are able.
I have pondered this moment for more than ten years now and I still don’t know what the right response would have . . . no wait . . . could have been.
“Well, we’ve . . . uh . . . you know . . . we’ve um, tried . . . but uh . . . I’m sorry have we met because I don’t remember catching your name before you know . . . you started asking me about the working order of my reproductive system . . . . . . . . . My name is Jerry?”
Honestly I get it. On two different levels I get it.
Having lived in China since shortly after that moment I’ve learned a lot about (and even come to appreciate) the “unencumbered” nature of Chinese enquiry. If it’s weird, ask about it. Why wouldn’t you?
I also realize that she was just culturally unencumbered enough to enquire about the the same thought that goes through everyone’s head when they see us.
We’re not normal. I get it.
We’re not like the other delightful little mall families whose kids are shrunken versions of themselves (no offense if you are one of those — you’re very cute). We are two white parents with a Chinese daughter and a black son and fair enough, the first thought that you think when you see us may start with “awww” or “hmm” but it ends you “cause you can’t make one.”
It’s ok if you had that thought . . . and thank you for not saying it out loud.
The first thoughts never define a relationship unless the relationship ends there. What you’ll discover, no matter how you choose to get to know us, though, is that we blend.
In fact we blend so much that now, when I see pictures like the one up there with our faces all squished together, I do a double take . . . and I remember that we really don’t look much like our kids . . . but man we go together.
Look at us.
I forget though . . . virtually always . . . what is so blatantly obvious to everyone who sees us for the first time. Hang out with us for a day and you’ll forget too.
My family’s not normal but let’s be honest . . . neither is yours. I love it that way.
Do you blend? Your blendedness may look a lot like ours or nothing at all. Either way, take a minute a brag on your family below.
We are easing back into the American life one baby step at a time.
While eating our frozen yogurt in Costco last evening we had one of those horrifying parent moments. As a gentleman of the . . . ahem . . . portly persuasion walked past our table, our son’s eyes widened, his pupils dilated, his jaw dropped and we could see it coming. Unfortunately not soon enough to prevent it from happening. He stated loudly and with great surprise in his voice,
“HE’S SO FAT!!”
There are actually multiple, simultaneous biological functions that occur when events like this conspire. As your entire digestive system shrivels up like a styrofoam cup on a bonfire your heart accelerates to 18 times its normal pace which expands the capillaries beginning in your face and rushing throughout your body knocking the plug off of your pituitary gland which unleashes a fire hydrant surge of the endorphins that cause embarrassment and shame. This causes an involuntary avoidance of eye contact and a quick prayer for God to administer momentary, retroactive deafness to everyone in the Costco food court.
I will now state my case for why we are not the worst parents on the planet
1. Our son is 4
Four year olds have an innocent fascination with anything that appears outside of their frame of reference. I believe he intended no malice.
2. Our son has grown up in China where:
a. There is a considerably lower percentage of portly people
b. We rarely panicked when he would say embarrassing things because the surrounding crowd, most likely, didn’t speak English well enough to understand a three year old. This was especially beneficial when he was 9 months and accidentally screamed obscenities every time he saw a rock.
c. Calling someone fat is more of an observation than an insult. “Hey Jerry. Long time no see. You look fat. How is your family?” A conversation that I am unfortunately familiar with.
3. He learned it at home
After six months of binging in America on red meat and processed carbohydrates that have been deep fried in lard, soaked in syrup and coated in sugar we are beginning to feel a bit portly ourselves. I believe the word we use at home is the word in question. Fat. I also believe that the tone in which we use the “F” word (albeit first person and not third) is the exact same tone that our son chose to use at Costco. Surprise and volume.
“I AM SO FAT!!”
4. Surely our kid is not the only one
Am I right? Surely I’m right. Please tell me I’m right?
I wish I could say that this story ends well.
As our bodies returned to their natural state we had the talk with our son. It was the standard talk, trying to explain to a four year old why people don’t like to be called fat, especially when it is screamed loudly in the middle of a crowded Costco. He assured us that he understood.
Moments later (as if on cue) a woman (of an even portlier persuasion) was heading our direction. Our innards pre-shriveled. Our pituitary glands braced themselves for impact. We both looked at him and said . . . “DON’T SAY IT.”
He assured us that all was ok so we breathed a misguided sigh of relief just as she walked by — and he said with no surprise, but still great volume . . .
First things first -- Apologies to those of you who came looking for the real Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. That is not me.
I live in China with my beautiful blended family. Together we are on an adventure that has taken us around the world and back . . . and then around again. Specifically 7 years on the East side of the planet (China) -- two years on the East side of the U.S. -- and now . . . back in China (on the East coast).
We like East.
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